Farmer Skip's Letters from the Field



Our farming adventure took two extraordinary — and fairly exotic — detours these past few months; hence, a partial explanation for our long absence from these pages.

In August, we were watching ourselves on reality TV, relieved we didn’t make fools of ourselves. In early spring we had answered the casting call for a new show on the History Channel called “You Can’t Turn This Into A House.” While the title is rather forgettable, the experience was memorable in driving home how obsessed we Americans are with any new angle in the production of food and shelter. So what better setting than an organic farm for a fast-paced, quixotic show trumpeting “sustainability”?

While the process of turning two dilapidated dairy trucks into a livable space was messier than anyone anticipated, the result was, with the help of “TV magic,” a thing of beauty indeed. We got to experience the demanding, repetitive nature of TV production and were rewarded with an almost functional tiny home that overlooks the gorgeous fields rolling down to Wilbarger Bend. After we add power to it, our plan is to make it available for renting to you and your pals. (Leads on an affordable way to add solar power, appreciated.)

A few weeks later, we found ourselves in the mountains of Mozambique, teaching organic farming in a country where subsistence — not sustainability — is the primary concern and where entertainment television — or television period —is a luxury few can afford.

Mozambique. The sound alone summons beautiful images of blue beaches and green safari parks. But that is not what we experienced. This former Portuguese colony, twice the size of California, sits above South Africa and across from Madagascar. People speak more than 43 languages and for two very busy and productive weeks we attempted to master a few of them.

After a 20-year absence from Africa, Erin was keen to accept this all-expenses paid offer to participate in the highly respected volunteer farmer-to-farmer program at CNFA (Cultivating New Frontiers in Agriculture). I was less enthusiastic. I’d been to Africa twice: once as a tourist, then again as a journalist covering the AIDS epidemic. Returning as a farmer this time, to help other farmers, was honorable and badly needed, but we had two farms to run and two kids just getting back in school.

Fortunately, I let Erin lead the way. And where she led us was to a place that will always remain close to my heart.

The farmers we trained didn’t speak our language or share much of our technology and techniques. Yet I’ve never felt more comfortable in a group of strangers. In the most fundamental ways, all farmers share the unspoken language of the soil; of working with nature in the most intimate way; of depending on forces outside yourself yet relying on inner strength — and others — to keep going when things get tough. We learned as much from them as they did from us, in ways I never could have anticipated.

We learned what it means to live without paved roads, waste services, or environmental protections against predatory gold and tree mining. And the consequences of living near the bottom of every health and economic indicator. Where half the population is under age 18. And three out of four are farming to feed themselves or try to raise their standard of living above the national income average of $39 a year!

Yet, despite endless challenges, we found Mozambiqueans eager to claim their future, to create businesses and move beyond the constraints of colonialism. Meeting such people as Alan Schwarz at his agroforestry initiative ( lifted our spirits to do what we can to further his efforts in restoring the forest and teaching job skills. We’re inspired to help him sell his gorgeous, truly sustainable wood products here so let us know if you have ideas on how to do this.

If you come to Spot’s Birthday Party and Barn Hug Potluck on Saturday (6-10), you’ll see some clips from our experience and hopefully be reminded why volunteer work is the best work of all.

Note: See for several volunteer opportunities to teach farming, nutrition and other sustainability topics around the world.

Click here to read our Newsletter Week 3A in full! 

Mozambique farmers proudly displaying their training program certificate.